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Ralph Ketner, co-founder of the Food Lion grocery store chain, died May 29. He was 95 years old and had recently been diagnosed with colon cancer.
Ketner’s concept of selling groceries at the lowest prices possible caught on in a big way, spurring the growth of his chain, originally known as Food Town, to fame and fortune as Food Lion, with currently more than 1,000 stores across 10 Southeastern and Mid-Atlantic states and 63,000-plus associates. The Salisbury, N.C.-based company is part of Delhaize America, the U.S. division of Brussels-based Delhaize Group.
A Life in Grocery
Born in 1920, Ralph Wright Ketner was one of seven children. His father, Bob, a farmer and butcher, bought a meat market in Salisbury in 1923, moving his family into the bungalow behind it. The store eventually added groceries to the assortment. By 1931, Bob Ketner operated six Ketner’s Cash and Carry stores. He died the next year, however, and his stores were auctioned off. Ralph Ketner’s oldest brother, Glenn, was able to buy one of them, maintaining the family’s connection to the grocery business. Ralph often worked in the family’s stores.
After college, service in the U.S. Army and various jobs, Ketner took a position in his brother’s warehouse, remaining in the grocery business from that time forward. Eventually, he, two of his brothers and a friend raised the money to open their first 15,000-square-foot Food Town store, located in a new shopping center in Salisbury, in 1957. A second location in the town opened within the year, but 10 years on, the business wasn’t doing well. In 1967, however, Ketner, then company president, decided to implement a low-pricing formula that a company in Ohio had adopted. The formula, which Ketner dubbed “The Big Change,” worked, and the business became successful.
In 1974, Ketner negotiated a deal allowing Delhaize to acquire 34 percent of Food Town. Two years later, Delhaize had purchased 51 percent of the company but let Ketner run the grocery store chain. The name change to Food Lion came about because when the chain expanded into Tennessee, there were already some stores named Food Town there.